L.E. Modesitt Jr. has been on my radar for a few years now, but I never got around to reading his books. This interview at the excellent Far Beyond Reality page finally jolted me into action, so I picked up one of the books the author himself recommends as a good SF starting point. I have to confess to a couple of concerns before I started reading, though they were generally settled by the interview. First, Modesitt is remarkably prolific, writing books at a pace that makes one suspect hackery. Second, his most popular work seems to be fantasy, which I read considerably less of than science fiction. Finally, he resides in Utah. I can say this as a long time former resident of the place, but I have grave doubts of anything worthwhile coming out of Utah, unless it somehow relates to Utah State University. Go Aggies.
However! My fears were rapidly dispelled. Modesitt may not be Tolstoy, but his craft is solid. Proportionately, he writes a lot of fantasy, some of which I plan to read sometime soon, but he slips comfortably into SF at will. He does indeed live in Utah, but it is in Cedar City (one of the few places I might tolerate) and is a transplant from Washington DC. All in all, I had nothing to fear. That said, when I was poking around the interwebs to refresh my memory on some plot points, I was surprised at the vehement reaction some reviewers had to The Eternity Artifact. Apparently Modesitt is a divisive writer, though I can’t imagine why; being enraged over a Modesitt book seems about like being enraged over a Honda Accord.
Eternity is ostensibly a Big Mysterious Object story, as the protagonists race out into space to investigate an alien planetoid. The BMO is never really the point of the story though, as Modesitt uses it as a launching pad to explore subjects both macro and micro, with the actual secret of the BMO fading into the background somewhat by the end. The micro is supplied by his characters, four of which take turns in the first person. The narrative duties are split between a social science professor, a tug pilot, a famous painter, and a deep cover spy. The shifts in voice are jarring at first, but one soon gets used to each character’s quirks. Modesitt uses the four to piece together the mystery, since each have their own perspectives and discoveries to share. The artist, for example, brings a completely different viewpoint to what is otherwise a standard SF yarn, while the professor allows for some more expansive world building.
The macro view is the backdrop through which the BMO moves. Modesitt has lifted a galactic society directly out of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, complete with a Judeo-Christian empire, a Muslim empire, one each for China and Japan, and even an incarnation of the secular West. The BMO is interesting by itself, but what really grabs the author’s (and characters’) attention is the way each star-faring government reacts to it. Much conversation passes between the investigators about why one group or another would launch an attack, claim the technology for themselves, or suppress everything in the name of orthodoxy. This is interesting for me, but I’m sure that some readers would prefer more space battles, more riddle solving science, or crazier aliens.
More than anyone other author, Modesitt reminds me of Jack McDevitt. Their approaches are different, but both pay close attention to the way society moves around their protagonists and what shapes the decision made by each character. McDevitt tends to put his ethical questions directly into the story, making them a part of the narrative, while Modesitt spends more time having his characters talk over the societal issues rather than being a part of them. Modesitt is well-served by his time in DC, bringing an insider’s view of the politics and economics of empire. Hard SF is generally limited to the physical sciences, and only recently to anything beyond astrophysics, but Eternity is Hard Soft SF, as it were, Hard SF for the social science masses. Swap out lengthy infodumps about stars, warp drives, and thermodynamics with political science, economics, and history, but leave the BMOs and space battles, and a Modesitt book emerges.
I can see why some readers might not go for this. I just happen to be part of a narrow demographic that loves Hard SF and Space Opera but has a graduate degree in political economy, so my tastes may be a bit rarefied. Still, this sort of attention to the underpinnings of world building is hardly unique to Modesitt, or offensive to large swathes of fandom; Daniel Abraham’s books are just one example of popular SFF that spends as much time muttering about comparative advantage as wormholes or mystic runes. Still, even pulling out Modesitt’s somewhat unconventional narrative structure and insistence on highlighting the squishier side of science, Eternity is a solid addition to the BMO canon. The mystery is suitably entertaining, the characters are given as much attention as the technology, and enough things blow up to warm my explosion-happy heart cockles. While I’m hardly a Modesitt veteran, I have to agree with his assessment that this is a good place to start with his books.
Rating: La Liga’s Malaga. A Spanish side purchased by a member of the Qatari royal family, buying players from all over the world, competing in the Champion’s League, and having financial trouble because said Qatari apparently doesn’t feel like paying his players. Not that Eternity is this messy, but it’s a good multicultural kerfluffle.